Filling Senate vacancies

Nate Silver has a valuable rundown on the record of interim appointed US Senators. A data summary:

    * 13 of the 49 (27%) ran for office, but were defeated in the general election;
    * 7 of the 49 (14%) ran for office, but were defeated in the primary;
    * 10 of the 49 (20%) chose not to seek a permanent term (including one who was prohibited by state law from doing so).

(It occurs to me that the parenthetical case there actually did not choose not to run.)

From that record, including some of the specific cases discussed by Nate, it seems clear that the poor reelection record of these interim Senators would be expected from the common practice of Governors choosing objectively weak candidates. Apparently, many of them have had no prior electoral experience or other record of achievement. Of course, that may be deliberate, either as deference to the party or electorate or as a simple short-term patronage exchange (with the current Illinois scandal being an extreme case of the latter).

Nate also notes the institutional variation among states in filling vacancies:

states can move to solve the problem themselves by passing a “fast” special elections law, as states like Oregon, Wisconsin and Massachusetts now have (and Illinois soon will). Other states have evolved other checks and balances; Utah and Wyoming require that the candidate be selected from among a list prepared by the state party apparatus, while Alaska, Hawaii and Arizona require appointees to be from the same party as the departing senator. Arkansas provides for gubernatorial appointments, but does not allow the appointee to run for re-election.

Clearly, the process of gubernatorial appointment* needs reform. But it is clear to me that the answer is not what one commenter suggests: that every elected official should have a “vice” (meaning a stand-by replacement, not the other meaning it might more accurately imply!). Many Latin American countries have such a suplente system, and it is much abused–a cure worse than the disease.

* Something that is not clear to me is whether Illinois or any other state allows for outright appointment by the Governor, or if the actual process is nomination by the Governor, followed by appointment upon conformation by the state legislature. It is my recollection that California, at least, has an “advise and consent” provision. The media coverage on Illinois leaves the impression that the Governor chooses unilaterally. I do not know if that is so. Maybe politically it does not matter in the current Illinois case: anyone with appointment–even if confirmed by elected representatives of the state’s electorate–would be branded, rightly or wrongly, as Blagojevich’s man or woman. But it certainly means that a wounded governor would have to defer to a representative body’s preference.

5 thoughts on “Filling Senate vacancies

  1. There is a long tradition in several countries, including Colombia (with its former quasi-SNTV system), Bolivia, and Portugal (closed-list PR) of candidates running with no intention of serving in the legislature, or intending to serve only a partial term. Then they hand their seats to their “vice” and take a patronage position (such as an appointed executive job) for themselves.

    This actually can happen in any list system, even if there are no formal suplentes (and, if I am not mistaken, there are none in Portugal). That is, those elected can resign and the next available candidate on the list takes the seat. There is not a lot than can be done about that practice and, in a closed list system, it can even be argued not to be an abuse in any case, because it is the collective party that is the agent of representation rather than individuals.

    A genuine suplente system–and this was what Colombia had till it was banned in 1991–has an “alternate” candidate for every “principal” legislator. In other words, if the elected principal resigns, it is not a candidate farther down the list who takes the seat, but an alternate at the same rank as the elected. This would be the model that most resembles a potential system of alternates that could be adopted in a single-seat-district system like the USA. That is, each individual candidate gets to designate, in advance, a replacement in the event he or she leaves office. That is, of course, exactly what a vice presidency is. Presidents, however, are a good deal less likely to leave office voluntarily for a more appealing position. Plus, the higher visibility of an executive position implies that voters actually pay attention to the VP candidate and a poor one can drag down the principal (see under Palin, Sarah). But for legislators, I would think the potential for abuse–upwardly ambitious candidates potentially selling their own seat–outweighs any presumed advantage.

    Special elections are preferable, at least in non-list systems.


  2. As David Butler and Austin Ranney noted (in one of their various books 20-30 years ago), in France, the MP’s pre-designated substitute is “officially – if infelicitously – known as the remplacement eventuel.”

    [quoting from memory]

    I believe Belgium allows voters to elect the supleants (understudy MPs) directly, on a separate part of the ballot with party lists that mirror those for the “main” candidates.

    My experience in, and observing, Australian student and trade unions is that some of these bodies elect (say) 9 Delegates to conference by STV-PR and then another 9 Alternate Delegates by a separate STV-PR ballot (and candidates can stand for only one set of positions). Others have a STV-PR ballot for 9 positions, and then seat the 9 last-eliminated candidates as alternates. In that case they are usually ranked in reverse order of elimination, although I seem to recall one student union where each delegate could lodge his/her own order of preference among the alternates to replace him/her if absent (as a temporary proxy) or if s/he vacated (as a permanent successor).


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